"FOLLOW ME" was the sticker emblazoned across the chest of the fresh-faced interns stationed at intervals leading to the Yerba Buena Center. "REGISTER HERE" said the giant sticker on the ground leading to the lobby. "THIS WAY" blared the arrow to the auditorium. The second annual Bloomberg Businessweek Design Conference was trying to simplify everything to its least common denominator, freeing up room in the mental microprocessor for the hard stuff: ideas. Conference participants signed on for nine straight hours of straight neuron bombardment, followed by two hours of concerted killing of those neurons through a lens that was shaken, not stirred. In the end they were left with more ideas, concepts, notions, schemes, plans, proofs and possibilities than they could ever imagine. Which was precisely the point.
The conference was organized around a series of talking heads, Steve Jobs-style, that has come to define business cool. Darkened auditorium, big slides, a succession of youngish guys (and precious few gals) in jeans and sport coats telling you what mind-blowing stuff they were working on. The formula was familiar, but the material was anything but: mimicking DNA sequencing to develop computer data storage structures, reinventing government communications to be citizen-friendly first, handicapped teens using 3-D printers to design their own prosthetic limbs embellished with lasers. And that was just the first session. The day turned out to be a rapid-fire download of Silicon Valley's finest brains at work, designing products, concepts, treatments and any manner of unimaginable things, and then letting us in where all of this cool crazy came.
Design was defined in its broadest sense; this was not a day for fiddling with fonts and smoothing serifs. Here, design meant conception, and its function was essential for disruption of products, services and whole industries. Some presentations on the big screen actually exhibited a lack of attention to visual design. Some presenters could use a little design support themselves. (Note to the guy with the yellow pants: maybe not. Ever.) One suspects that Bloomberg Businessweek is using the notion of design as a Trojan Horse to wheel into the seemingly impenetrable fort built of TED Talks. Let us not forget how our sponsor, New York's erstwhile major domo, made his money by designing a device to show people who made money just how much money they were making, minute by monetized minute.
To be fair, design was invoked in the service of more than just making Benjamins. A varied roster of presenters spoke about making jeans, making customers happy, making buildings, making movies, and making cool stuff do cool stuff. There were lots of new terms, too; presentations were peppered with opinions about "wearables," "context engines," "nanorobots," "the sensorscape," and the "thingiverse." You heard it here, folks. (Who needs Bloomberg Businessweek when you can have it triple-distilled in SFWire?)
So who and what did designers deign to discover? Bloomberg Businessweek brought out their A-Team of editors Josh Tyrangiel, Creative Director Richard Turley, Editor Ema Rosenblum, and writers Sam Grobart and Brad Stone. Presenters included Jawbone's Hosain Rahman, Makerbot's Bre Pettis, Frog Design's Timothy Morey, Microbiologist Andrew Hessel, Sha Hwang of Arrayarray, Lit Motors' Daniel Kim, Tech Shop's Jim Newton, Quirky's Ben Kaufman, ILM's Hal HIckel (can't go wrong with Star Wars stuff,) Snohetta Architecture's Craig Dykers, Target's Todd Waterbury, artist Florentijn Hofman, and AT&T's Gregg Heard. The paucity of xx chromosomal configurations was compensated by caliber: Diller Socidio+Renfro's Elizabeth Diller, One King's Lane's Alison Pincus and Susan Feldman, Intuit's Kaaren Hanson, and Gap's Rebekka Bay all fairly represented the fairer, to be fair. But this was not about being "fair and balanced." Bloomberg Businessweek built this conference around designers who were daring, divergent, and distinguished in the dissemination of their thinking. They know that those are the designs that define.